The meaning of recent events

Two days ago I wanted to write but I didn’t write. I was in a bind. The purpose of this blog is to write about meaning. One important aspect of meaning is the significance of world events. Something terrible had just happened, so terrible that it is unspeakable, and I felt it important to think about and write about.

A terrorist broke into the home of the Fogel family in Itamar on Friday night while they were sleeping, and killed a family – Udi was 36, Ruth 35, Yoav 11, Elad 4 and Hadas was three months old. What was particularly gruesome was that they slit the throat of the three month old baby and then beheaded her. Two children escaped and survived. The 12 year old came home from an activity to find the massacre.

On one hand it’s not pleasant to talk about or hear about these things. On the other hand these things must be known. This dichotomy put the family in a dilemma. They didn’t want to be disrespectful of the dead but they wanted the world to see what kind of people we are trying to make peace with. So they showed the photos on the internet. I will spare you.

If it was just a few extremists it would be bad enough. But they were giving out sweets in Gaza to celebrate, just as they gave out sweets after 9/11

Pictures are problematic for a few reasons, not only because of respect to the dead. For one, they lose their impact. It makes people think you have an axe to grind, a political platform to promote and you are trying to build up your case, and they don’t want to hear it. They think, “You are trying to play on my emotions and I won’t allow you to.”

Another problem is that although pictures speak louder than words they can present a distortion of reality or even depict something patently false. Fabricated pictures, as for example is illustrated in this youtube film about Pallywood also speak louder than words.

It’s critically important to see reality for what it is. Only then can a better reality be created, not by sticking our heads in the sand and pretending the Arabs want to live peacefully with us when unfortunately the majority of them don’t.

I’m going to switch to the topic of religion and atheism now but you will see that it is related. I heard from a reliable source that Rabbi Alan Kimche in England told the story of when he was studying from a great Torah scholar, that a secular psychologist was asked by a certain family to treat a person who was fervently religious and only pored over Bible and Talmud all day and they felt something was emotionally wrong with him.

The psychologist was concerned that perhaps the man was engaged in proper religious experience so he went to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and asked him for his opinion. The rabbi said that if this person is as meticulously careful with the intricate laws dealing with how one should relate to other people as he is in the laws between man and God, then what he is doing is a valid expression of religiosity and he does not need psychological treatment but if he is only involved in his relationship with God then his fervor is a psychological problem that should be treated.

Why did this story come to mind? I thought to myself, caring about other people is the true meaning of religiosity. Sure, there are responsibilities and obligations to God but as Rashi, the major commentary on Bible and Talmud says in tractate Shabbat regarding the statement “What is hateful to you do not do to others,” the vast majority of religious obligations are between man and man.

The world has a problem with religion because they have seen what has been done in the name of religion. But just because people speak in God’s name and say Allahu Achbar (God is great) does not mean that God thinks they are speaking in God’s name.

When people kill in the name of religion, it’s not religion. If it’s not humane it’s not Godly. It’s not religion to behead a three month old baby in her sleep. Let’s get that straight.

This does not mean religious fervor is bad because if you’re not passionate about it, what kind of meaning does it hold for you? But the passion has to be directed towards people first and foremost and then we can know that it is genuine religious zeal.

It is easier to be a victim. Frankl teaches that every adversity that comes to us in life is meant for us to embrace and overcome in a spiritually mature and morally exemplary way. We can only do that if we understand our commission to overcome evil with good.

This is the story of Purim, the holiday we will soon celebrate. We Jews say Vena’hafoch hu. meaning it was turned around. Instead of being victims the Jewish people were victorious over their enemies who wanted to decimate them.

One picture of the tsunami in Japan particularly put me in awe of the great force of God, as the waves of water washed over and pulled along absolutely everything in its path.

The human tragedy there is immense. The numbers are unimaginable. We don’t even know what will be the end of it. But right now I’m speaking from the perspective of the feeling of helplessness that brings us to realize God is in control of the world and there comes a point where we accept there is nothing we can do.

Yes, there is nothing we can do in the face of God’s power. But there is much we can do when we step up and take responsibility to help people in need and to do whatever is in our power to do.

This is what the holiday of Purim is about. Queen Esther risked her life to save her people. As Mordechai said to her, “Who knows if it was not only for this moment you have achieved royalty?”

And that is why we celebrate with acts of kindness to one another – both to help those who are in need of our help and to increase bonding with our friends.

The true religious fervor comes from realizing that we are helpless, yet empowered by God, when we act with love and compassion and thus grow into the image of God that is our God-given gift and responsibility to develop.

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